by Dr. Michael Main

Michael Main Portrait
Michael Main has a PhD in anthropology from the Australian National University. Michael’s PhD research focused on the Huli population in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) highlands and the impact of ExxonMobil’s Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas project. Michael has a professional background in geology and environmental science, which underpins his interest and work in the anthropology of development and resource extraction.

It is easy to draw a straight line between the experience of the “material conditions of life” 1 and the desire for change in the PNG highlands. Less easy is to obtain an understanding of the perceptions of material hardship, especially prior to the initial encounters with Australian explorers during the 1930s. As a starting point it is worthwhile describing current conditions of life for the vast majority of the Huli population, at least as it existed during my fieldwork. As in other parts of PNG, Huli people are increasingly able to compare their lives to those of people in other parts of the world. For the majority of the population that lives in conditions of poverty and are unable to travel, the spread of mobile phone technology has resulted in a rapid expansion of a type of material awareness, filtered as it is through the particular constructions of audio-visual media. This is especially the case for more isolated and neglected areas such as Komo and Hides. At Komo I lived with a Local Level Government (LLG) councillor named Charles Haluya who had built a guesthouse using the abundance of funding that was available during the construction phase of the PNG LNG project. He owned a television with a DVD player and had a small collection of movies. One particular movie had caught the attention of Charles and his young children, which they watched repeatedly during my stay. The movie was Princess Protection Program about a princess from a small country that is undergoing a military coup who is whisked away to safety in the US by a covert international protection program that looks after princesses in danger. 2 As someone who had a good grasp ofthe language that was being used in the film, and who had travelled relatively widely, I was occasionally asked to explain various aspects of what was going on, which I struggled to be able to do for myself as much as my hosts. What type of encounter was this? I could recognise the self-conscious absurdities of the movie, the motivation behind its making, its target audience and its comparative place in the western cultural canon. Clearly its Huli audience at Komo was not in a position to embrace the absurd or recognise the boundaries of fantasy contained in the well-worn tropes of the particular genre. But none of it could be characterised as an encounter with modernity.

In material terms, the Huli experience of watching the movie offered nothing new. The novelty of the experience lay in the encounter with the film’s absurd whimsy, its indecipherable context and self-conscious vacuity. The experience is better described as an encounter with post-modernity. A random selection of films was shown at a nearby trade store along the road to Mt Sisa. Young men and adolescents gathered to play on its dilapidated pool table and watch movies while the generator was running, resting their home-made rifles against the wall. During my stay at Komo on one occasion I entered the balamanda 3 to chat to the bored young men who were lying around escaping the hot afternoon sun. One of them was watching an episode of “America’s Got Talent” on his phone. “None of these boys knows their dindi malu” a local elder had earlier explained to me as he was despairing over the propensity for young Huli men to take up arms against each other in land disputes. In the balamanda, where dindi malu, 4 history, had been traditionally taught, the young man watching his phone was just as bored as me. With nothing to do but watch crap American television, the young man in the land of LNG and vast extraction of wealth was in the middle of a post-modern crisis.

Early during my fieldwork I had an encounter with someone who recognised the need to explain to me that the Huli population does not want to live in bush material houses. “We don’t want to live like this” he said. At that stage he didn’t realise that I was going to be staying for a long time. In viewing his situation through the eyes of a temporary visitor, such as a tourist, he was able to perceive the cognitive dissonance between a post-card view of Huli life and the torpor of developmental neglect. This sense of “we understand the way you perceive us from your point of view but want you to be able to perceive us from our point of view” was widely expressed during my fieldwork in a variety of ways. Others felt the need to explain to me that they understood my perception of time. Then they wanted me to understand and to be able to contrast my experience of time with the Huli experience of time, i.e., the western need to specify discrete packets of time within which certain things are to be achieved, versus life where the commodification and measured partitioning of time is not a functional requirement. These perceptions are born out of Huli habitation of external life-worlds rather than encountering them from the outside.

To his credit, my early Huli interlocutor correctly perceived my initial uncertainty about Huli relationships between their traditional past and desires for development. The relationship is not immediately obvious. Aesthetically pleasing bush material houses are a tourist drawcard, and during my stay a tourist lodge was being constructed on the slopes of Mt Sisa (Mt Haliago) 5 that featured well-appointed versions of traditional Huli homes (Photo 4.5). The Sisa Wigman Lodge was entirely owned, planned and constructed by a local landowner named Joe Tiki who was trying to encourage tourists, and therefore business, to his beautiful mountain. Tragically, during the course of my fieldwork, the only way to access his site was to travel on foot through an active battlefield. Joe’s efforts to improve the lives of those living among the foothills of Haliago were appreciated and respected by the same people who desired the benefits of a tourist industry but whose fighting was making it impossible for his dream to succeed. His business idea, which he named “Mt Sisa Culture Eco Tourism Limited”, also depended on the nearby Komo airfield being available for commercial flights, as had been promised prior to its construction by ExxonMobil. A proposed design for one of the lodge buildings included a square roof constructed using four different roofing techniques, as illustrated below:

Hela Roof Tile Design

Joe wanted to design a house that represented the four sons of Hela 6 by incorporating their respective traditional roof designs into the one building. This design directly relates to a well-known Huli saying that categorises Huli and surrounding cultural groups in terms of their roof design. These sayings, which Huli call pureremo, are based on observable cultural stereotypes. 7 The pureremo that relates to Figure 4.1 is as follows:


Joe’s house design indicates the degree to which these Huli neighbours have been incorporated into an all-encompassing Hela identity. A sign (see photo 4.6) had been created to advertise the lodge that included a Vision Statement for the tourism company that read: “People deriving wealth and meaningfulness in life from their cultural and traditional norms and eco-systems and living daily lives free from all forms of insidious impacts and effects of poverty.”

The sign included an illustration of a traditional Huli wig above an oil rig established on top of Mt Sisa. Joe explained that the sign represented the ascendency of Huli culture above development. As indicated in the vision statement, culture and poverty are viewed as anathema to one another. Development, as represented in the form of an oil rig, ideally provides a bedrock for a culturally fulfilled and meaningful life. Pre-modern Huli life and culture is viewed as being pre-loaded with its own development potential, and, as such, development itself is a traditional cultural possession.

Photo 4:5 Sisa Wigman Lodge under construction with its founder
Photo 4:5 Sisa Wigman Lodge under construction with its founder
Photo 4:6 Sign for Sisa Wigman Lodge
Photo 4:6 Sign for Sisa Wigman Lodge

Joe conceived of what tourists would want from the viewpoint of the tourists themselves. Crucial to this perception is an appreciation of aesthetic amenity, both of the built and natural environments. These aesthetics, constructed entirely for tourists, are a business proposition rather than a domestic way of life, and their construction is an already embodied modernity in search of an authentic cultural experience reflected back upon itself. Poverty and the drudgery of traditional forms of labour take a heavy psychic toll on the majority of Huli youth who have no choice but to continue to live off their land. On one particular occasion I was visited by a young man who wanted to talk to me about his life. He was motivated by the desire to have me understand how difficult and undesirable was his way of life. He hated having to grow sweet potato and raise pigs and spoke in tones of desperation as to how he might be able to live a different kind of life. He was inhabiting my point of view, not on the basis of two people from two very different worlds interacting with each other, but two people with very different histories inhabiting the one world. Another friend, Fred Tomai, wanted to explain to me the Huli life of subsistence farming:

“We do subsistence farming. We don’t do commercial farming. Commercial farming is only few. That’s how we earn our living. So we continue from our ancestors, it’s going to be continuing for our future life. Exxon came and changed our living and then we’ll be somebody in the future, otherwise we are still living on the same level as our ancestors have been living.”

But Exxon had not changed his living, or the lives of the vast majority of landowners in the PNG LNG Petroleum Development Licence (PDL) areas. Exxon came and changed the future, and fulfilled the prophecies of the ancestors (which turned out to be a cautionary tale). Fred and Joe were from the same village in the foothills of Mt Haliago, just outside the Petroleum Development License (PDL) area. But the lives of the people were, for the most part, identical regardless of proximity to the PNG LNG project. Joe recognised the need to diversify the economy if any development benefit was going to be realised for the landowners. He explained his tourism lodge project:

“We all came from one generation and that is all comes from Hela. So now they gave us a new province, Hela province so it’s based on this four Hela, Duna, Duguba, Obena and Huli. So that’s how our generation came from. So now I’m trying to promote the culture and tourism here so I’m just struggling, trying my best, spending my own resource and trying to do something. But most in this area we have the LNG project but most of us we don’t get benefit from the LNG. Most of us are uneducated, we just live in the remote area. So that’s why I just, as for myself too I haven’t been to higher education now I’m not educated. But I’m just trying to do something to benefit the community here.”

Throughout my fieldwork I had the experience of having my own perceptions reflected back at me. It was not a case of anticipating how I, as an Australian, might perceive the world and experience Huli society and culture, but the genuine embodiment of my own perspective that was not likely to understand the extent to which our two perspectives were shared. The desire for “high covenant” houses and eco-tourism lodges is not a parroting of western perceptions, but a construction of culture as the historically-mediated art of good living. To embody a genuine Huli identity, to be Huli ore, 8 is not to remain in an impoverished state, but to live well in the fulfilment of life’s potential. In this way Huli are free to be tourists in their own country, exploring the multiple potentialities of their own cultural heritage.

(Extract printed with permission of Michael Main. “Until Hela Becomes a City: The Western Encounter with Huli Modernity”. Doctoral Dissertation, Canberra: Australian National University, 2020. pp. 128-138)

  1. Peter Dwyer and Monica Minnegal, “Waiting for Company: Ethos and Environment Among Kubo of Papua New Guinea,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4, no. 1 (1998). Here I respond to the observation that “cosmological understanding and the material conditions of life are synergistically linked”, and that “too little heed” has been paid to the latter by anthropologists in PNG. Although the observation was published in 1998, there is, I think, still plenty of heed that needs to be pai []
  2. []
  3. Men’s house []
  4. Lit. “land history” (see Chapter 2, note 37). []
  5. Haliago is the Huli name that is also used by Etolo to the south. Sisa was the name given by Ivan Champion who took it from a language group on the Papuan Plateau. []
  6. Huli, Duguba, Duna, and Obena []
  7. Laurence Goldman, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes, 67-68. The pureremo text is reproduced from Goldman’s book, with the omission of the final line that incorporates the tin-roofed house of the white patrol officer. []
  8. Lit. “Truly Huli”, or “very Huli”. Both a cardinal marker of a Huli centrality in the Tari Basin, and the expression of a perfect (Platonic) Huli form ideally represented by young males of the haroli bachelor tradition. []